Chandre Dharmawardana, in The Island, September 2017, with title “Unit of Devolution – look in cyberspace!“
It is interesting to read the debate about what the unit of devolution should be. Recent articles, by Dayan Jayatilleke (Island, Sep. 20, 2017) and Neville Ladduwahetty (Sep. 23, 2017) argue for the Province (DJ), and for the District (NL). Interestingly, both the TNA, and their counter organizations pay homage to “the indivisible nature of Sri Lanka”, the “Orumiththa Nadu” and the “aekeeya Rajya”, while also supporting “maximum devolution”, i.e., the opposite objective! In our view, the issue of power devolution to units of government is an obsolete question. However, we discuss them as usual and lastly look at the enormous technological possibilities that exist to leap frog into a system compatible with the 21st century.
Even within the traditional picture, the five burning questions are: (I) Why do we need devolution? (ii) What is the “maximum” that can be “devolved safely”? (III) To what units do we grant this “devolution” of power, and (IV) What over-arching power is retained to prevent the units aggrandizing power and spinning out? The most important question is the fifth (V) Who controls the purse?
Power devolution ultimately depends on how we split the purse. Political power without economic clout is empty. If the “Province” is to be the unit of devolution, does each province depend on its own Income and Taxation, or on equalization payments from the Center? How much equalization payments are going from rich provinces to poor provinces? Instead of leaving it to the private sector, a vast amount of money was spent by the south to eradicate terrorism, de-mine and rebuild the North. If economic independence is proposed, will the North and the East be asked to repay (in time) the expenditure?
Equalization, sharing of water etc., will be the issues that will ultimately allow one or other province to accuse the center of “discrimination” or “exploitation” and go for separation. Minister Wigneswaran had already objected to getting Mahaweli water as it would be an obstacle to “self-determination”. Ethnic factors are not the only reasons for separation. The rich Western province can go for separation from its poor cousins, while a province with fossil fuel may want to go away with it and join Texaco! Furthermore, can a devolved unit accept money from foreign powers and foreign NGOs and there by acquire economic clout, and become, wittingly or unwittingly, an appendage of foreign forces? That would be de facto separation.
The proposed constitution seems to create a Kafkaesque castle with many labyrinths. It invokes many types of local councils, community councils, provincial councils, provincial – interprovincial-cooperation units, constitutional courts, a second chamber, a first chamber, a cabinet and its Prime Minister, the President, 13 PPSCs and its national analogue (?), local and national courts etc. The process of government will grind to a halt in this labyrinth, and nothing will happen in a transparent manner. These will be welcomed by power cliques around the president, prime minister or other figures. They will work to remain in power and to sell bank bonds and backdoor booty! An ideologically driven Province will do what it pleases, especially if it has support from outside the country. Prabhakaran got de facto separatist power even within a “centralized” constitution, purely because of the initial support rendered to him by Indira Gandhi, followed by the continuous support from Tamil Nadu politicians and local politicians funded by NGOs.
More expensive & inefficient
A devolved system makes matters more expensive, more inefficient, and provides room for more misunderstanding. That is why countries make Unions, e.g., European Union, NFTA etc., while zealots and isolationists call for Brexits and build walls, e.g., against Mexico. Devolution was natural or justified at a time when communication was slow, via sailing ship or horse messenger. Today, Sri Lanka is a global village linked with Internet, Facebook and Twitter, served by TV and radio channels, with many coming from outside. People store their family pictures and pizza orders in the Cloud, and plan their weddings to get into Guinness or at least into U-tube, hoping to go viral. Their aspirations are increasingly globalized. With Google-maps and street views available instantly, we get accurate local information non-locally, from any center. Devolution “outwards” is as irrelevant as “localization” on a hologram.
It is claimed in favour of devolution that the insensitivity of centralized power caused the ethnic conflict. Colombo allegedly neglected the “aspirations” of a minority that finally took to arms to redress the problem. This is an easy and invalid simplification of the causes that led to the political polarization of the country on ethnic grounds. The root of the problem was the existence of ethnic enclaves in the North and East, exploited by a class of absentee Landlords who lived in Colombo and remotely held their provincial fiefdoms. They envisioned that militant nationalism can be used to keep their lands and their surfs (lower castes) in their hands. Dr. Jane Russell has documented the situation since the time of the Donoughmore Commission, where we see a clear picture of confrontation as well as cooperation between the landed gentry of the North and the South. This cooperation broke and bottomed when SWRD took power, although the Swabasha revolution was inevitable. Its midwife, blinded with narrow communalism, left room for ethnic confrontation. The confrontational genie escaped; the militants became terrorists who assassinated their own Colombo-based leaders. They usurped the “Arasu” vision for themselves, clad it in Eelam and turned against the State.
Even though the North had many English schools and better links with the West, only a limited segment benefited. They moved to Colombo or to foreign climes as soon as they got the education and the wealth. Given the American-mission schools, the modernity and cosmopolitanism that should have flowered in the North aborted within the cadjan-fences of Hindu orthodoxy and ethnic insularity. Even today, we have a chief minister in resonance with the white supremacists of Southern USA and advocating pure-race marriages. To the orthodox Jaffna man this also means caste purity in marriage. How can devolved power in such hands create reconciliation?
The size of the unit of devolution – districts or even provinces, was determined in olden times by the distance a messenger can travel on horseback. Today, there is instant communication; a provincial administration can be anywhere in the world where it is cheap to run a call center. But of course it is logical to have it in Sri Lanka, with the best technical support, centrally located by road, rail and harbour, and closest to the most vibrant economy. Today it is Colombo, and tomorrow it may be the Port city built by the Chinese, with all the provincial administrations located in one tower!
Modern communication ensures that the local people cannot be fooled by politicians. Lots of people have cell phones and that can instantly show the local situation. Direct electronic representation is possible without the need for a Kafquesque multi-tier government of the sort proposed by the constitution makers. Old-style constitutions are rapidly becoming nonviable and irrelevant. The center of government becomes a large “call center”, backed by statisticians and data analysts who evaluate opinions posted directly by the public. An institution like “ICTA” of Sri Lanka can be expanded to become the nerve center and brain of the parliament. The Constitution should specify aspects of the algorithm, which tells us how to deal with the opinions directly collected from the people, and partly how the politicians use the data to achieve the visions and aspirations reflected in the messages sent by the people. Any issue can be directly put into a public vote – a referendum- at no cost as the system is already in place. Traditional polls and referenda are also a must to check and verify the “high tech system”. The politicians need to be visionaries projecting their vision to create public opinion. We do not need many, but we need a few really good ones.
CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA,Ottawa, Canada